Sean Wilentz: Nader Hasn't a Prayer of Changing America's Party System (But He Could Help Elect W)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sean Wilentz, writing for the New York Times (March 7, 2004)

Ralph Nader is once again running for president, but unfortunately for him, he is running in 2004 and not 1860 or 1912.

Historians and pundits like to cite the rise of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party as the exception to the rule about the small influence of third parties and candidates in American presidential politics. Yet the Republicans were not in fact a third party. By the time they organized in 1854, the nation's two-party system had already collapsed following 35 years of argument over the spread of slavery. One major party, the Democrats, had splintered over the issue, and the other, the Whigs, had effectively vanished.

Ralph Nader, with his announcement that he will try to challenge what he calls the"duopoly" that makes Washington"a corporate-occupied territory," seems to think that he can replicate the original Republicans' spectacular success. And yet unlike antislavery agitators, he is opposing not an existing two-party system but just one-half of that system -- the Democratic Party. During the 2000 campaign, a sympathetic interviewer for the radical magazine In These Times reported that Nader talked about"leading the Greens into a 'death struggle' with the Democratic Party to determine which will be the majority party." Now Nader is continuing his fight to the finish -- not as a Green but as a pristine"independent."

In the United States, third parties and candidates, whether they like it or not, have always been gadflies. They raise issues and propose programs that the major parties are either too timid or too unimaginative to embrace. When they succeed, they help shift national political debate, as the Populists did in the 1890's or as the Socialist Party and the"Bull Moose" Progressive Party did in 1912. Sometimes their proposals become law, as in the case of unemployment insurance and Social Security -- old Socialist Party proposals that eventually won favor among the electorate. But the price third parties pay for their success is enormous -- for after their issues have been taken up by others, they become irrelevant even as goads. ...

...But Nader will never be a Lincoln -- for we are not living in a latter-day equivalent of the 1850's. Although specific abuses cause considerable agitation among liberals and Democrats, the nation is not as riven over" corporate power," Nader's diffusely projected target, as it once was over slavery. Nor are the parties as indistinguishable as Nader implies. After four years of the corporate-dominated Bush administration, the Democrats are more united and outspoken in their goals than they have been for many years.

When he announced his fourth try for the presidency on NBC's"Meet the Press" on Feb. 22, Nader claimed that he wanted to"fight for all third parties" against a system" controlled by two parties in the grip of corporate interests." Yet after running twice as a presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket, Nader has now turned away from the Greens to run as"a true independent." How can anyone who spurns a third party as insufficiently pure also call himself a champion of third parties?

By rejecting the Greens, Nader has also relinquished even the traces of accountability to a party rank and file that buoyed both the antislavery Republicans and the more conventional third parties. Instead of a clear-cut political program like Lincoln's -- barring the expansion of slavery into the nation's territories -- Nader offers little to differentiate himself from liberal Democrats besides tarter slogans about corporate greed and domination. ...

...If Nader could magically rewrite the United States Constitution and replace it with Italy's, his continuing efforts might gain plausibility. They would at least qualify as rational. But without that -- and without a modern-day parallel to the Fugitive Slave Law or Bleeding Kansas of the 1850's -- he is destined for political oblivion. He may leave behind as his most striking achievement the re-election of George W. Bush -- a man who stands aggressively for everything Nader claims is most corrupt about America.

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